There are more than 125 active whisky distilleries in Scotland. For every man, woman and child, there are about three casks of whisky maturing somewhere in the country.
Distilleries and bonded warehouses are strewn across the country; very few parts of rural Scotland are not touched by the industry in some form or another. But who owns it all? Historically, distilling has been a family affair, with many families engaged in illicit distilling “going clean” and building legitimate, commercialized distilling empires over the last two centuries. Since then, much of the industry has been consolidated and bought up by international drinks giants like Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi, leaving very few of the original great distilling families in business.
But there are a few notable exceptions. Whilst not all of these are still run by their founding families, many are still in private hands. Then there are brand new independent distilleries, approaching the traditional and often stuffy world of scotch whisky in novel ways.
Whisky, like a lot of things, seems to taste even better when you know what it’s made from, those who crafted it and the landscapes that influence its style and character. Always keen to get to know the story — and the people — behind our choice spirits, these are some of the most outstanding independent Scottish distilleries to look out for, and a choice bottling from each.
Bottle to Try: Benromach 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
The Urquhart family knows a thing or two about whisky. Fourth-generation distillers, the family are custodians of independent bottling firm Gordon & MacPhail. Predominantly bottlers of single malts sourced from distilleries across Scotland, the family didn’t have a distillery of their own until 1993, when it acquired Benromach Distillery a few miles from Elgin, Moray.
Five years of re-equipping later, Benromach was awoken from a dormant slumber of around 15 years of inactivity. One of the smallest distilleries in the region, Benromach are sticklers for quality and stubbornly insist on only using “first fill” casks that have not been used to mature Scotch previously, enabling Benromach’s raw spirit to extract maximum flavor from the wood. Unusually for a Speyside distillery, Benromach lightly “peats” its malted barley by drying the grain with peat smoke, for just long enough to impart a subtle but discernible dry smokiness to its world-class malt whisky.
Bottle to Try: Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky
Perched on the east coast of Angus in the Scottish Highlands, the Arbikie Estate is a working farm that’s been in the hands of the Stirling family for four generations. Now run by brothers John, Iain and David, it’s a true single-estate distillery with an ethos to match. The Stirling’s plant, grow, sow and harvest everything that goes into their creations — which includes a range of vodkas, gins and, of course, whisky. A relative newcomer to distilling, Arbikie does not yet have a bottled single malt — rumour has it that the family are willing to wait for nearly 18 years before sharing their malt whisky with the world. Arbikie has, however, been busy bottling something unique.
Its Highland Rye is the first Scotch Rye Whisky distilled in over 100 years; records suggest that Rye was being used to produce Scotch hundreds of years ago, but in recent times the grain fell out of favor. Leading the pack of a handful of Scottish distilleries experimenting with this spicy and often overlooked grain, Arbikie’s second Rye release – bottled at a youthful four years old – offers a glimpse of what is to come.
Bottle to Try: Kilchoman Sanaig Whisky
The first new distillery for 124 years on the Isle of Islay – known as Scotland’s “whisky island” for boasting no fewer than nine distilleries – Kilchoman is a quintessential farm distillery. For its “100% Islay” bottlings, the team at Kilchoman grows its own grain, malts it, mashes it, distills it, bottles it and probably also drinks a fair bit of it too. It does get pretty cold on the west coast, after all.
With its own malting floor – where its homegrown barley is dried and turned by a man with a shovel- Kilchoman can smoke barley using peat dug from ancient bogs just a stone’s throw from the farm. This really is distilling as it was 200 years ago (Kilchoman has an uncompromising obsession with keeping things traditional). The copper stills here, for example, are a fraction of the size of any other on the island but that only adds to the charm; the emphasis is on getting it right, not on producing en masse. Kilchoman is also a full-on family affair, with Managing Director Anthony Wills’ three sons traveling the world with suitcases full of island malt which is quickly giving the old guard distilleries of Islay a run for their money.
Bottle to Try: Arran Amarone Cask Single Malt Whisky
Given that Scots have been at this distilling thing for a few centuries, Arran Distillery is a relative newcomer, having just turned 25 years old. Nicknamed “Scotland in Miniature,” the picturesque Isle of Arran shares characteristics of both the rugged, dramatic scenes of the Highlands and the gently rolling hills of the Lowlands. Despite its youthfulness, Arran wasted no time in building an eclectic range of expressions which showcase this island distillery’s versatility. We’re particularly big fans of Arran’s “wine finish” releases; ex-bourbon cask matured malts transferred to various wine barrels including Port, Sauternes and Amarone to impart distinctive and exotic flavors to this sublime island malt.
Bottle to Try: Bladnoch 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
With its two-century-old deep bluestone walls situated on the banks of a gently flowing lowland stream teeming with brown trout and salmon, is it any wonder that Bladnoch is known as the “Queen of the Lowlands”? One of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, Bladnoch recently had a short spell of inactivity before being purchased by Australian David Prior who gave it a much-needed refurbishment, reawakening this sleepy lowland legend and launching a range of limited edition malts bottled in unmissable, striking decanters. Nick Savage, former Master Distiller at Macallan, runs Bladnoch’s production and has recently overseen the release of ultra-rare single cask bottlings, including one exclusively for a bar in the owner’s native Melbourne.
Bottle to Try: Edradour 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
As one of Perthshire’s original farm distilleries, Edradour has a certain rural charm about it with its bright white fencing and impossibly small stone buildings crammed with equipment. When visiting one summer, I was present when the mash tun – the vessel in which the barley is steeped with hot water right at the start of the production process – was being emptied of draff (the spent grains left behind). Distilleries often sell this protein-rich byproduct onto farmers for use as animal feed. I noted, however, that two small, perfectly measured buckets were being kept back whilst the rest was hand shovelled into the farm trailer sitting outside. I asked about the buckets. “One of the lassies who works in our visitor centre owns two cows.” Of course. Welcome to Scotland.
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